Tuesday, February 25, 2014

'The Invention of Wings': The story of sisters, mothers and freedom

I admit it.
I like Oprah.

I didn't know that was such an odd thing until I started reading Oprah's latest Oprah 2.0 book selection 'The Invention of Wings' by Sue Monk Kidd, but apparently over the years of her television metamorphosis from queen of talk to queen of everything she garnered some vehement critics.  My very wonderful, yoga friend Sarah loves to read, but after I told her I was reading Oprah's latest book selection, her face scrunched tight and she said, "I purposely try to avoid anything she reads or suggests.  Oprah bugs me."

I guess I missed that chapter in pop culture.  I do know that when I moved back to the United States after living in London for a year, I cried the first time I watched Oprah.  I missed her show that much.  I can't say I am still a devotee or that I've paid much attention to what's she's been up to since her talk show ended years ago, but I am not adverse to her reading material even if the bulk of it tends to be a bit depressing.

I can see why Oprah selected Sue Monk Kidd's third novel which follows the dual narrative of Sarah Grimke and her handmaid, Handful (a.k.a. Hetty).  The story opens in the early 1800s on Sarah's eleventh birthday when her mother surprises her with her very own slave (Handful, age 10) as her main gift.  Sarah who already shows tendencies of going against the grain of the southern way of life refuses to except a person as a gift even if her present has a nice blue bow tied around her neck.

The beginning of the story captured me as it intertwined the lives of two worlds - the world of the privileged white plantation owner's disobedient and headstrong daughter and the world of the oppressed and abused slaves who lived to escape punishment and retribution from their owners.  Handful and Sarah's friendship grows and Sarah even teaches Handful to read, even though to do so is against the law.  Sarah suffers her own abuse from her family in the form of a stifling of her spiritedness.  She developed a stammer when she was only four years old after seeing one of their slaves whipped, but she also develops something even more dangerous and horrible - an incurable desire to be a lawyer which was unheard of for women in the early 1800s.  Even worse still, she has compassion for her handmaid and treats her as equal as she can.

The narrative also shares Handful's devotion to her deviant, seamstress mother, Charlotte who refuses to be enslaved even though she is a slave.  She tells Handful that their owners may have their bodies, but they can never enslave their minds.  Charlotte plays a sharp contrast to Sarah's mother who the slaves call Missus, a sharp speaking, angry, merciless woman who believes in punishment and tradition.

The story spans decades and follows Sarah's growth into one of the most notorious abolitionists and pioneers of the women's rights.  As Sarah moves North, Handful's life becomes tangled in proposed slave revolts, a bout at the deplorable work house (which is where slaves were punished severely for disobedience), and a longing for her mother who disappears one day.

I loved parts of this book, and other parts felt a bit thin and underdeveloped.  I appreciated the entire story and it's significance after reading the Author's Note and discovering that Sarah Grimke and her sister Angelina were indeed real women who rallied for anti-slavery much to the dismay of men and especially Southerners.  They were ahead of their time for the suffragist movement, but they influenced other great women who fought for the cause.  Sue Monk Kidd wove together pieces of history and developed the storyline of Handful based on a document that showed the Sarah did indeed receive a handmaid as a gift for her mother, but records indicated the handmaid died of an illness in her teenage years.

By bringing history to life and giving Handful the wings she needed to expand the storyline of hope and freedom, Kidd shows the same writing prowess she displayed in 'The Secret Life of Bees.' 'The Invention of Wings' isn't merely about coming of age as 'The Secret Life of Bees,' but it shows how an entire country gained the courage to rally for human rights of all because of the courage of a few brave souls who knew change was needed even if it wasn't the popular thing to do.  These revolutionaries stood up for those who were unable to stand up for themselves, and the entire country benefited from the bravery of people like the Grimke sisters.

This book is another important reminder of our past as a country.  We have come so far, but we still have work to do for equality.  As much as Oprah might bug some people, I am glad she continually challenges society to take a step back, contemplate our history and consider where are we now. As Sue Monk Kidd says in her Author’s Note at the end of the book, “History is not just facts and events. History is also a pain in the heart and we repeat history until we are able to make another’s pain in the heart our own.” That’s why we read these sad stories that Oprah picks and why she continually chooses them for her audiences.


Tuesday, February 18, 2014

'Glitter and Glue': Understanding the value of moms and motherhood

Motherhood sometimes sucks.  Some days I question everything- how I lost my temper when Raina told me I had to do the laundry because her hamper was overflowing (doesn't she understand that I already completed 5 loads of laundry that day and the overflowing was due to her use of 3 towels at bath time?), or how I told Story I didn't have time to read another Ariel book with her on the couch because I needed to answer emails.  Some days I feel inadequate because I don't want to make Valentine's Day treats for my daughter's class or I don't offer to volunteer for the PTO, and I am relieved when my husband takes over after dinner time because I am alone in a room without being bombarded with the shrill, "Mommy, Story's being mean to me!" battle cry from Raina.  Some days just making it through a grocery store run without my four year old melting down feels like a huge accomplishment.  Some days being able to accomplish work, laundry, a healthy dinner (even if Story refuses to touch her broccoli), helping Raina with her flashcards and math worksheets, and playing The Voice with Story before 7pm feels like I am a superhero.

Motherhood also rocks.  When Raina comes downstairs in the morning, even though she is 9 years old, the first thing she wants to do is sit on my lap.  She curls her now gangly limbs into an odd ball, and fits herself neatly on my legs as I read the paper.  Story lights up every day when I pick her up from her Montessori school, so proud to share her work with me.  We sing the songs from "Frozen" as loud as possible in the car as we drive to piano lessons, and after our latest round of 19 inches of snow, we built Olaf and snow forts in the backyard, giggling as Story slid down the sliding board into a huge mound of snow.

Kelly Corrigan gets both sides of motherhood.  When I read her 2008 memoir "The Middle Place" about her bout of breast cancer I cried as she cried through the prospect of not being there for her two little girls.  In her latest memoir "Glitter and Glue" she pays homage to her mother as she recounts her travels to Australia where she worked as a nanny for a family who had recently lost their mother to cancer.  Through her memories of this coming of age time for her, she pieces together her past with her mother who "looked at motherhood as less a joy to be relished than as a job to be done." Corrigan's mother described herself as "the glue" of their family while her gregarious, lacrosse playing, doting father was "the glitter" adding dazzling intensity to her days.

Something about Corrigan's truth telling with bouts of humor and clear details about life and living makes me love her.  Her style isn't academic or breathtaking, but it shows the clear struggles and triumphs of figuring out who we are - as people, mothers, daughters, lovers and wives.  Some critics complain that Corrigan over sentimentalizes or forces parallels between past and present in her latest memoir, but I would argue that nothing is more overly sentimental and sometimes even forced than being a mom and understanding motherhood.  As each chapter draws to a close, Corrigan writes a kernel of truth which isn't something that astounds the reader as much as it gently reminds them of a larger point like, "What is it about a living mother that makes her so hard to see, to feel, to want, to love, to like? What a colossal waste that we can only fully appreciate certain riches- clean clothes, hot showers, good health, mothers - in their absence." The Tanner children will grow up without their mother, and she realizes while she is their nanny (playing the mother role in their lives) the value of her own living mother as she watches their daily rebuilding of a life without their glue.

Any high school student who read Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" could tell you that we need to appreciate the simple things in life because those are what Emily Webb misses most in death - clocks ticking, Mama's sunflowers, hot baths, coffee, and newly ironed dresses.  Emily's big question is "Do any human beings realize life while they live it?" and maybe the answer is that some do - those who write about their lives and try to seek understanding, those who have experienced great suffering, loss, disease, and maybe a few who just greet each day and decide to appreciate and respect and notice all the simple beauty around them.

Kelly Corrigan has suffered, and she writes about what she knows in the face of her suffering, what she has learned from her glittery father and what she has learned from her mother holding things together.  Because that's what moms do, they hold things together.

In this brutal East Coast winter while we all try to hold ourselves together with dignity and dig ourselves out from yet another snowstorm, and we get the agonizing call from the school that yet another 2 hour delay and funky routine is headed our way, we may not always feel like the supermoms that we believe our daughters and sons need.  Some days being a mom really rocks and some days it really sucks, but mothers, as Kelly Corrigan puts it, are the "sole distributors of the strongest currency" our children will ever know: "maternal love." 'Glitter and Glue' felt like an early mother's day card for me, and gave me exactly what I needed during this winter - validation that I am doing everything just the way I need to be doing it.  I am being a mom to my two daughters the best way that I can.  Some days I am the glitter, but more often than not, I am the glue in their lives always holding everyone together.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Lean In: Stay and Sit at the Table

When my best friend gave me "Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead" by Sheryl Sandberg for Christmas I didn't race home to read it.  I actually avoided it for a whole month by preoccupying my reading time with fast paced memoirs and sappy romance YA novels.  I heard of Sandberg's book, but reading the diatribe of Facebook's COO with a bunch of business talk and women empowerment stuff just didn't resonate with me.

In the last year much has changed in my life.  I removed myself from the manic pace of work and traded my 15 year career as an English teacher for a more gentle approach to life that centers around my family, writing, reading, running our on-line writing community Stageoflife.com, and yoga.  I no longer feel tied to or pressured by a schedule.  I have time to not only look at my children and get them to their activities, but I am engaged in their lives now.  I see them in the morning when they are at their best.  I see them in the afternoon when they are at their worst.  I see them after dinner when they just want to play and be silly.  I am present in not only their lives but my own.  So . . . let's just say, I wasn't interested in reading a book that encourages me to go back to a manic pace of life or even step up the pace more frenetically by joining the competitive business world.

After I read through the stack I placed on top of Sandberg's smiling face to keep her from staring me down at night and making me feel guilty for not even attempting to read my best friend's well thought out Christmas present, I finally relented last week.  At first my overwhelming emotion while reading was contempt.  Why though should I feel contempt for Sandberg's mostly gentle and thoroughly researched study of how women exclude themselves from leadership positions?  She doesn't finger wag or even place judgements.  She doesn't pretend to have all the answers, but simply wants to start a conversation stemming from some alarming statistics in relation to women leaders and women in the workforce like "the percentage of women at the top of corporate America has barely budged over the past decade.  A meager twenty-one of the Fortune 500 CEOs are women.  Women hold about 14 percent of executive officer positions, 17 percept of board seats, and constitute 18 percent of elected congressional officials." But it doesn't end there.  Even from Sandberg's personal experience she brings up important points about maternity leaves (women leaving before they actually leave work), women being reluctant to join in discussions at the board meeting (she urges women to sit at the table), women not being liked when they achieve powerful status in the workplace (gender discount theory), and discrepancies of how much more work women do in terms of childcare (three times more) and housework (two times more) in relation to their partners (on this point, Sandberg makes a plea for women to make their partners real partners in all areas).

The whole time I read "Lean In," I asked myself, "Do you like this book?" and I couldn't really answer my own question.  I learned while reading it.  I reopened my questions about why women choose what they choose.  I faced my own choices of the last decade since I became a mother and struggled with balancing work and being a mom, maternity leave and going back to work, and trying to find a balance of power in my own household.  I remembered my fire and intensity in high school and college always wanting to be the leader of organizations and planning my future of successes and accolades.  And I wondered where did my ambition go?  Why did I lean out so far away from the work force, and instead create my own safe haven where my creativity can flow at my own pace? Why do women choose what they choose?

It wasn't until I watched Sandberg's TEDTalk that I truly appreciated her message.  I may not have been dazzled by her writing style, but when she speaks, I want to listen.  Her TEDTalk showed me why she has garnered such success in her life from Washington D.C. to Silicone Valley.  She reflects calmly, but carries a weighty and important message about the future of women and men in our country.

Her final thought in her TEDTalk is the same as in her book, and when I read it (and listened to her say it) I truly appreciated Sandberg for starting the conversation and being an activist for choice and change.  She said:
"My greatest hope is that my son and my daughter will be able to choose what to do with their lives without external or internal obstacles slowing them down or making them question their choices.  If my son wants to do the important work of raising a child full-time, I hope he is respected and supported.  And if my daughter wants to work full-time outside her home, I hope she is not just respected and supported, but also liked for her achievements."

With two daughters of my own, I hope they can choose whatever they want to do with their lives and that they can dream big without reality and lopsided statistics weighing them down.  I want them to be able to lean in or jump in wherever they want to be knowing that they can do whatever they want to do, and that it isn't just a nice thought coming from their mom, but the truth of the world where they live.

I think this book will be one that people talk about much the way women today talk about Gloria Steinem and her fight for women's equality, and Betty Friedan and her book "The Feminine Mystique."  And although I leaned out (way out) and was happy and relieved to do so, I hope this book gives more power to the women who want to lean in . . . all the way.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Fangirl: Not as good as Eleanor & Park, but still lovable

I loved Rainbow Rowell's book "Eleanor & Park," so when I saw "Fangirl" on the New Fiction shelf at Kaltreider library, I checked it out along with a stack of my daughter's picture books (many of them involving animals in underpants.  She's four what do you expect?) and a few memoirs for me.  I wanted something fun to read amidst the depressing ice and snow storms that are plaguing my life (and much of the East Coast) right now. Rowell's second YA novel did momentarily transport me from this gray winter, and although I know legions of girls who will adore this novel,  I didn't like it as much as "Eleanor & Park." 

The story follows Cath, an introverted, Simon Snow ultra-fan, and popular fan fiction writer, as she ventures wearily into her first year of college.  Although she is terrified to leave her mentally fragile father, her twin sister, Wren, can't wait for the parties, new friends and new adventures.  During Cath's first weeks of college, she only leaves her dorm room for classes, but refuses to even visit the dining halls to eat (and instead nourishes herself from her stash of protein bars).  Her sassy roommate, Reagan, decides to make Cath her "project" and helps her to journey out of her shell.  As Reagan and Cath become closer, Cath and her sister drift further and further apart.  

And, since it is YA, you guessed it . . . there is romance.  The romantic interests in this book shift a bit from a boy in Cath's writing class, Nick, to her roommate's ex-boyfriend, Levi. The innocence of the young love almost hurts to read, but it did make me smile.  

What didn't make me smile was the interruptions of Cath's fan fiction "Carry On" throughout the book. I know the book is called "Fangirl" which means that the fiction within the fiction won't bother most readers, but I didn't enjoy the gay courtship of the two main characters of the Harry Potter-esque fantasy story that Cath wrote.  I actually skipped most of those parts to focus on the developing relationships between Cath and Levi, and Cath's side worries of her father, disappearing and reappearing mother and her sister's avoidance of problems.  Those story lines were the true heart of this book, and the fan fiction detracted from those.  

Cath, although a bit neurotic and melodramatic, became endearing and lovable as she faced her fears and challenged herself to break from her self-imposed fiction prison.  She began living life for real rather than only living to write the fantasy world which was based on a popular fiction world of another author. 

Although fan fiction is not my thing, so I can't relate to the devotees of reading alternate story lines of popular series, I know that many people are addicted to fan fiction.  I can think of so many of my students who loved the world of Harry Potter so much that all other books were spoiled for them, or during the Twilight craze girls in my classes that fantasized about Robert Pattinson and his pale face and sweeping widow's peak (which, by the way is Levi's trademark that Cath comments on all the time). 

To me, Rowell shows her talent as a writer in this book by keeping many story lines afloat, moving between fan fiction writing, writing excerpts of the fantasy book Cath writes her fan fiction about, and giving her characters enough quirkiness and likability that even someone like me who doesn't like fan fiction can still find things to love in this book.  

I am already looking forward to another Rainbow Rowell YA novel that explores an unlikely relationship between two multi-faceted people, who face odds due to family issues in their blossoming love, but find a way to make things work.  I just hope the next one she writes doesn't include fan fiction of any sort.